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Five Takeaways From The Turkish Election
Five Takeaways From The Turkish Election
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Five Takeaways From The Turkish Election

Originally published in POLITICO Europe

Turkey voted on Sunday. The results are eye-catching, and certainly worth parsing for a world that awaits explanation. Here are five quick conclusions for a wide audience.

1. After 12 years in power, the tide has turned against Erdoğan

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s apparently unstoppable rise hit a democratic bumper in Turkey’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, despite his presiding over 12 mostly boom years at the top of Turkey’s political system and the fact that his party won more than 40 percent of the vote.

Erdoğan began the election season by setting his followers a goal of winning 400 of parliament’s 550 seats for the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The idea was to change the constitution and legitimize the executive powers he is already using in practice. Even on election night, his stalwart advisor Yiğit Bulut was still in denial about AKP’s setback, insisting that “this result means one thing: an executive presidency.”

This is now most unlikely to happen. What happened to Erdoğan, one of Turkey’s luckiest, canniest and most charismatic politicians?

For sure, Turks have become tired of a creeping authoritarianism, a narrowing space for opposition, tightening state control of the judiciary, policy mistakes in Syria and the Middle East, and an extravagant 1,150-room presidential palace.

But the most bitter paradox for Erdoğan is that it may have been precisely his personal engagement to clinch a supremely powerful executive presidency that backfired, leaving AKP as the largest single party, but without a parliamentary majority or an obvious coalition partner.

Casting aside the traditionally neutral role of Turkey’s president — a five-year position he has held for less than a year — Erdoğan stepped in to spearhead his old party’s campaign, haranguing vast crowds about ‘we’ (the ruling party) against ‘them’. Using sometimes vitriolic language, he claimed all the other parties had “formed gangs” against AKP, and were siding with foreign “conspirators” and “terrorists.”

The result: The anti-Erdoğan camp indeed reacted against his attempt to consolidate power. Enough of them persuaded their friends to vote for a small Kurdish nationalist party that for once topped Turkey’s 10 per cent threshold of the national vote to get into parliament on its own account.

This swing of about five percent against AKP completely upset nearly 13 years of Turkish parliamentary arithmetic. Whatever happens next, Erdoğan has lost his old ability to control the government and possibly even his party from his presidential post.

2. Democracy works, even for Kurds

It helped that the leader of the Kurdish nationalist Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, ran a superb campaign, resulting in his party receiving 13 percent of the vote.

Demirtaş had all the right lines, even when a bomb killed two people and injured 100 just before his last big rally, calming supporters by saying “we must give the answer at the ballot box.” With youthful good looks and an easy manner, he appealed to Turkish progressives by vowing to seek peace to end Turkey’s three-decade-old Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgency, choosing Turkey’s first openly gay candidate, fielding far more women candidates than many European political parties, and even accepting as genocide the destruction of the Armenians of Anatolia in 1915. Erdoğan derided him as a “pop star.”

HDP will have to work hard to keep this high non-Kurdish share of the vote, but already the climate is more conducive to reconciliation between Turks and Kurds. As one Istanbullu commented: “We used to look down on Turkish spoken with a Kurdish accent as being the language of peasants. Now it’s cool.”

3. The result may well help efforts to end Turkey’s PKK insurgency

If Demirtaş and HDP had not reached the 10 percent threshold, its disappointed MP candidates might have gone to Diyarbakir and declared an autonomous parliament. This would have fed into polarization between Turks and Kurds, and empowered hardliners in the PKK insurgency.

But now that HDP has won a place in Ankara as a political party and not as a group of independents, there is a clear, legitimate, Kurdish counterpart for solving the Kurdish problem in Turkey. Whatever platform is chosen for the discussion — parliament, a constitutional convention, a group of wise persons — it will need to address long-standing Kurdish concerns about mother-tongue education, a non-discriminatory constitution, decentralisation, a fairer anti-terrorism law, and a lowering of the ten percent election threshold.

Without such political advances there will be little chance of persuading the PKK to disarm in Turkey, or of turning a ceasefire in place since 2013 into a long-lasting peace settlement.

This is by no means the end of the road in a conflict that has killed more than 30,000 people since 1984. HDP may now have become empowered as an interlocutor, but it has lost its all-powerful partner in Erdoğan. Bombings and attacks on the HDP during the election campaign are a reminder that violence is always close to the surface.

4. Politics are going to be uncertain in Turkey for a while

Turkish television stations lit up with debate as the extent of Erdoğan’s problems became clear, throwing off recent years of caution during which a wrong word could bring a phone call from Ankara that could cost a journalist his or her job.

Some commentators thought the AKP would push for another election in the hope of winning back their lost ground. But the newly empowered parliament would have to vote for that, which seems unlikely. A minority AKP government supported from the outside by another party also would not be sustainable, and seems unlikely.

AKP leaders sent mixed messages about whether or not they might go into coalition with any of the other main parties. The next biggest party, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), with 130 seats, might be too ideologically opposed to the pro-Islamic AKP. The right-wing Nationalist People’s Party (MHP), with 81 seats, is more likely to join AKP. Demirtaş, on behalf of HDP, with 79 seats, ruled out the possibility.

If none of these pans out, it is possible that the three opposition parties — CHP, MHP and HDP — will get together.

5. Turkey is not going back to the bad old days of the 1970s or 1990s

Long-faced AKP supporters gloomily started recalling the bad old days of coalition governments in the 1970s and 1990s that led to runaway inflation and bloody domestic conflicts. They believed that Turkey would miss the political stability and almost uninterrupted economic growth it has known under Erdoğan’s rule, and the mega infrastructure projects of his “New Turkey” that built new roads, railways and airports all over the country.

But the fact is that the economy had already started slowing, and has long been seen as a bubble waiting to burst. Whoever won was going to have trouble. And part of AKP’s fear may be that long-suppressed corruption cases may now come back on the agenda.

At the same time, Turkey once again demonstrated a key difference with its Middle Eastern and Eurasian neighbors: its elections were once again well run, its results accepted, and participation high. It was long clear that a small number of votes could swing this election, fueling suspicion among AKP critics that the ruling party would try to increase its share of votes with election fraud. While news of small irregularities circulated on social media, the government deserves credit for the conduct of elections and the acceptance of results — but so does civil society, which staged an unprecedented effort to monitor the polling stations.

And things may not be so bad as Turkey finds a new normal. Turkish society is now more mature, compromising and accepting than in previous eras that were ended by military coups or plagued by ideological intolerance. Pluralism is now appreciated as necessary, a fundamental change of which the AKP, in its early years, was an integral part.

Ironically, it was also Erdoğan’s increasing intolerance of dissent, epitomized in the crushing of the Gezi protests in Istanbul in May-June 2013, that created a sense of solidarity between many normally fractious factions of Turkish society — nationalists, Islamists, Kurds, secularists, and liberals — that set the stage for much of the activism that persuaded Turks to vote against him on Sunday.

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Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Originally published in Valdai

Last weekend, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Ankara to discuss, among other things, the latest developments in Syria amid Turkish concerns over the consequences of a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel enclave, Idlib. 

The Russian-backed offensive against that last opposition enclave is aimed at keeping the rebels at arm’s length from the Russian air base in Latakia, re-opening the Damascus-Aleppo highway and eventually retaking the city of Idlib, the provincial capital that has been held by the rebels since 2015. As such and for the past six months, much of Idlib and its environs have been under intense attack from the Syrian Arab Army on the ground and Russian warplanes in the air. The government forces have been able to seize strategic villages, including the medieval fortress town of Qalaat al-Madiq, a major crossing point into Idlib, and the towns of Kafr Nabudah and Khan Shaykhoun. The long-dreaded offensive has left 1,089 civilians dead and 600,000 displaced.

In September 2017, the three Astana guarantors, (Turkey, Iran, and Russia), negotiated a partial ceasefire in Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement, monitored on the opposition side through twelve Turkish military outposts deployed along a blurry deconfliction line between the rebels and government forces. A year later, a deal between Turkey and Russia, announced in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, headed off a seemingly imminent Syrian army offensive and reinforced the earlier deal. The Turkish-Russian agreement tacitly committed Turkey to oversee the withdrawal of jihadis along with all heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars held by all rebel groups from a 15-20 km “demilitarised zone” bordering government-controlled areas, and allowed the re-opening of the Latakia-Aleppo and Damascus-Aleppo highways, which pass through Idlib.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio.

Ankara and Moscow, however, remain at odds over the interpretations of the Sochi deal and its implementation. Moscow has made clear that a de-escalation arrangement is by no means a permanent alternative to the eventual return of the state to north west Syria. On the other hand, Turkey views the deal primarily as a tool to prevent a Syrian offensive on Idlib, and preserve a “de-escalation zone” out of Syrian government control until a broader political settlement can be reached for the eight-year old Syria crisis. As such, Turkey has agreed that moderate rebel groups would be separated from radicals and the latter would lay down arms and move out of a defined demilitarised zone. However, Moscow and Ankara remain at loggerheads over which rebel groups in Idlib should be designated as terrorists. When the agreement was announced, Hai’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group formerly linked to al Qaeda, controlled around 50% of Idlib Governorate; today they control almost all of it. Ankara believes that much of HTS is fundamentally pragmatic and a potential ally for eliminating radical transnational jihadists, while Russia treats HTS uniformly as a terrorist group, and describes the Sochi ceasefire as conditional upon HTS’s removal from the demilitarised zone and “separation” from the armed opposition. In terms of implementation, Turkey claims that they have successfully rolled back jihadis and cleared the demilitarized zone of all heavy weaponry. On the other hand, the Russian Ministry of Defence has stated that HTS attempted to attack Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase twelve times in April 2019 using unmanned aerial vehicles.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio. It is no secret that if Russia greenlights an all-out offensive, an opposition-led infantry ground force will not be able to stop it. Nonetheless, a military solution in Idlib would still be exceptionally costly for all parties, Russia included. Retaking Idlib militarily would strain Moscow’s relations with Turkey and would require force levels that could only inevitably lead to a bloodbath in the densely-populated province. More significantly, capturing Idlib militarily would risk scattering jihadi militants now inside Idlib across Syria, and globally, including into post-Soviet states. If Russia hopes to avoid that, it needs to consider an alternative to a catastrophic military victory.

Today, a return to the existing Sochi understanding will do little good, in part because – to acknowledge an uncomfortable reality – any agreement that is to prove sustainable needs to address the divergent views between Russia and Turkey over some of the key actors in Idlib, including HTS. Russia can help the Syrian government crush Idlib, if it so chooses, and if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory, including thousands of jihadis scattered across Syria and beyond. If it hopes to spare itself that cost, however, it needs to consider alternatives to a military victory, which would have grave security consequences.